Guest commentary: Short-term rentals and neighborhoods can coexist — with the right regulations

This La Jolla Farms short-term vacation rental was the subject of a civil enforcement action by the city attorney's office.
This short-term vacation rental house in La Jolla Farms was the subject of a civil enforcement action in October by the San Diego city attorney’s office.

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott recently filed a civil enforcement action to shut down a La Jolla Farms short-term vacation rental. The city Planning Commission, at the behest of City Council member Jennifer Campbell (who is also the new council president), recently voted for a proposed ordinance calling for licensing STVRs, capping their numbers and penalizing violators. This is good news. But it doesn’t go far enough.

Technically speaking, STVRs are illegal under the San Diego municipal code. I say “technically” because, in reality, they are allowed to flourish. One estimate puts the number of STVRs in San Diego at 16,000. And, a vacation rental data website, puts the number of active rentals in La Jolla at more than 700.

Obviously somebody seems content to look the other way. Somebody also seems content to make a profit. Who can cast blame? People need to make a living. But making a living doesn’t have to mean that STVRs (and the companies that push them) can run roughshod over basic norms of decency and civility. The stories of unruly tenants and absentee landlords and owners are legion.

It seems rather clear, then, that in the absence of robust regulations, STVRs will continue to grow and gobble up the local housing stock. Let us not forget that San Diego (like most major cities) faces a grave affordable-housing crisis, and homelessness can, at least in part, be explained by our lack of affordable housing.

So should STVRs be banned? Banning something is often ineffective and leads almost inevitably to an underground economy. Moreover, homeowners should, within agreed-upon guidelines, be able to use their homes to make a profit. The only workable proposal, in other words, is to regulate the industry more intelligently.

My proposal, therefore, consists of four parts. First, the rental would have to be your primary residence, by which I mean the owner lives in it for at least seven months (thereby eliminating so-called Wall Street investors). Second, we would limit the number of STVRs in any given area. Third, we would limit the spacing (meaning you can’t have row upon row of them). And fourth, we would require STVRs to register as businesses and tax them accordingly. The taxes should somehow go back to the local communities impacted by STVRs and fund enforcement efforts.

It’s no secret that STVRs have grown in popularity. But many people are unaware of the impact they are having on our city’s two main crises: homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. Transforming your house into an STVR (rather than a traditional rental) means you can make a lot more money. But this also means that houses that would otherwise be available to families are now out of reach. Teachers and first responders can’t live where they teach and serve; school enrollment drops; the tax base shrinks; neighborhoods deteriorate.

San Diego is a beautiful, coveted and increasingly cosmopolitan location. Out-of-town guests, many of whom shop at local establishments, enjoy staying in local homes. And investors, as one might imagine, like making money. But San Diego is in many ways a charmingly small town with countless families going back generations, including my own. My children play where I played as a child, and this positive pattern repeats for so many other local families.

This special aspect can — with the right amount of oversight — be protected. STVRs and neighborhoods are not, in my view, mutually exclusive, and the deleterious effects of these short-term rentals can be minimized, especially if the primary-residence requirement is enforced. Coexistence is indeed possible, but only if we are committed as a city to making it work.

“If we wish to rebuild our cities,” [late San Francisco Supervisor] Harvey Milk once said, “we must first rebuild our neighborhoods.” I couldn’t agree more. With a new San Diego mayor and City Council in place, the time for intelligent regulation is now.

James P. Rudolph is a La Jolla resident and an attorney.